Picture this: It’s gone past midnight, on Christmas Eve. December 24th is now officially the 25th. You’re hung over, from a week of club gatherings, family get-togethers, and office parties. Kids have been pestering you, all day. And most of the night.

So – glass of Alka Seltzer in hand – you face the budget-size Christmas tree in your budget apartment. Suddenly, a plaintive cry: “Ho! Ho! Whoa!!!”, issues from the space above your imitation Yule log fireplace.

And a portly old gentleman in red crashes to your living room floor.

Now, before you go reaching for your cell phone to dial 911, let’s stop to consider who this poor fellow might be, how he came to be here, and what he might represent.

Wise Men, From The East

A group of foreign dignitaries is said to have visited Jesus in Bethlehem, shortly after his birth.

Described variously as Wise Men, Kings, Astrologers, or Magi, the Gospel of Matthew notes that they came “from the East”, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense (a type of incense), and myrrh (an oil used for embalming). And that there were three of them (by implication).

In the Western Christian church, they are commonly known as Melchior, Caspar (or Gaspar), and Balthasar (or Bithisarea).

So, even at the earliest stage of the Christmas phenomenon, the concept of bestowing gifts on a small child had been established.

The Child, Himself

During the Protestant Reformation of the European church that took place in the 16th and 17th centuries, reformers insisted that it should be the Christ Child (Jesus), or Christkindl himself, who gave gifts to his fellow youngsters at Christmas time.

The name Christkindl was modified in English to Kris Kringle – a name now associated with one of the gift-givers we’ll discuss later.

At this time, gifts were distributed on Christmas Eve (Dec. 24). Earlier, however…

The Norse God, Odin

On the horns (Ho! Ho! Ho!) of the Viking cultural traditions of Northern Europe and Scandinavia, the Germanic holiday of Yule was marked by a great hunting party – led by Odin All-Father, the king of Asgard (which was home to the Norse / Viking gods).

Seen the recent Marvel Comics’ movie, “Thor?” Then you’ll recognize Odin as Thor’s dad.

Two books from 13th-century Iceland – the “Poetic Edda” and Snorri Sturluson’s “Prose Edda” – describe Odin as riding an eight-legged horse called Sleipnir, that could leap great distances.

According to some traditions, children would place their boots – filled with carrots, straw, or sugar – near the chimney of their fireplace, as food for Odin’s flying horse. Odin would reward the children for their kindness by replacing Sleipnir’s food with gifts, or sweets.

This practice still survives in parts of Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Hey, don’t look at me. I’m still freaking, about the 8-legged horse.

Old Saint Nick

Saint Nicholas of Myra was a 4th-century Greek Christian bishop of Myra (now called Demre) in Lycia, which was a province of Byzantine Anatolia (now in Turkey). Nicholas was famous for his generous gifts to the poor. Most notable among these was his presentation of marriage dowries to three daughters of a poor but pious Christian, who would otherwise have been forced into prostitution.

By the 13th century, Saint Nicholas was well known in the Netherlands, and the practice of gift-giving in his name spread to other parts of Central and Southern Europe. In the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, and Germany, he is still portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes.

Saint Nicholas was the primary inspiration for the Christian figure of Sinterklaas.

Tradition has it that Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) and his helpers arrive each year by steamboat from Spain, in mid-November. They carry a book containing notes on all children, to indicate whether a child has been good or naughty during the year. Gifts, chocolate letters, and spiced nuts are given to the well-behaved children.

During the next three weeks, Saint Nicholas rides a white-grey horse over the rooftops at night, delivering gifts through the chimney to the good children. The naughty ones risk being caught by Saint Nicholas helpers – who carry jute bags and willow canes.

Sinterklaas is an elderly, austere man with long white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape (chasuble) over a traditional white bishop’s robe (alb), sports a red mitre (pointed bishop’s hat) on his head, and holds a gold crosier, or curled shepherd staff. He carries a big book; the one with the notes in it.

Father Christmas

This old fellow dates back at least as far as the 17th century, in Britain. Pictures from then portray him as a jolly, well-nourished and bearded man in a long green robe, lined with fur.

He was initially associated more with holiday merry-making and drunkenness, than with the bringing of gifts. In 1843, when Charles Dickens novel, “A Christmas Carol” appeared, the Father Christmas figure was pegged to one of the characters in the book – the green-coated, cheerful Ghost of Christmas Present – and his image reformed to that of a gift-giver and spreader of joy. The French Pere Noel and the Italian Babba Natale underwent a similar transformation.

Who WAS that bearded man, anyway?

A.K.A.Santa

Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle et al eventually merged, to create the character now known as Santa Claus.

In the British colonies of North America – and later the United States – British and Dutch versions of the gift-giver amalgamated, first. In Washington Irving’s, “History of New York” (1809), Sinterklaas was Americanized into Santa Claus – a name which had first been used in the American press, in 1773. No bishop, this; he was first pictured as a thick-bellied Dutch sailor, with a tobacco pipe and a green winter coat.

In 1823, the poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” was published in the Troy, New York, Sentinel. Its author Clement Clarke Moore described Saint Nick as “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.” Many of his modern attributes – such as riding in a sleigh that lands on the roof, entering through the chimney, and having a bag full of toys – were established here.

One of the first artists to define Santa Claus’ modern image as a large, heavy man in a red and white fur-lined suit was Thomas Nast, an American cartoonist fo the 19th century. The story that Santa lives at the North Pole may also have been due to Nast’s work. A color collection of Nast’s pictures published in 1869 had a poem titled, “Santa Claus and his Works”, by George P. Webster, who wrote that Santa’s home was “near the North Pole, in the ice and snow.”

Santa Claus’ benevolent image was reinforced by its association with charity and philanthropy – especially through organizations like the Salvation Army. Each year, volunteers dressed as Santa Claus took part in fund-raising drives to help needy families at Christmas time.

The Ladies, Too

The idea of a wife for Santa Claus may be traced back to American literature of the 1800s. In 1889, poet Katharine Lee Bates popularized Mrs. Claus in her, “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride.”

The 1956 popular song “Mrs. Santa Claus”, by George Melachrino, and the 1963 children’s book, “How Mrs. Santa Claus Saved Christmas” (by Phyllis McGinley) helped cement the character and role of Mrs. Claus, in the public imagination.

In Italy, La Befana is a bringer of gifts who arrives on the eve of Epiphany (Jan. 6). It is said that she set out to bring gifts to the baby Jesus, but lost her way. Now, she brings gifts to all children.

So, none of us are exempt, from this gift-giving thing.

Okay. You can reach for that cell phone, now.

Go. Go. Go.

Peace.

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